Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kith - the importance of children going wild

When I was five, I used to walk to school and to my best friend's house alone. The first journey took about eight minutes, the second about twelve. Both required you to cross roads but none of them especially busy, and this was the primary safety consideration.

Jay Griffiths reports in her fascinating book, 'Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape' that one set of parents (in the UK) were reported to social services for allowing their children (eight and five) to take a similar journey unaccompanied (except by one another).

In the ensuing forty years, arguably the traffic has become marginally denser, though cars are better designed with regard to the potential to cause injury, and you are no more likely to be abducted now as you were then, the chance is very small (though utterly tragic when it does occur). What has changed is the fear that it might happen, magnified by its voyeuristic reporting, such that a child's felt sense of autonomy and resilience is undermined and parents wrap them about, enclosing them in an apparent arc of safety (except as Griffiths points out, sadly, 90% of abuse is inflicted by those we know)!

It is one vignette, amongst many in the book, that describes the enclosure of childhood. The analogy implicit in the word is carefully chosen as Griffiths wants to show us the linkage between a childhood that is allowed to follow the contours of nature and revel in all its diverse aspects and human and natural flourishing and its opposite the enclosure of nature and childhood within the bounds of parental authority, school discipline and the utilitarian that leads to depressed, curtailed human beings who knowing nothing of their carrying world dismantle and damage it accordingly.

The evidence that demonstrates that children who are allowed to go 'wild', have self directed adventures within nature, even within the local city park or backlot re-imagined, are more resilient, happy, self- confident and curious is now overwhelming as it is intuitively fitting.

Griffiths is an unabashed Romantic both about the world and childhood but it is a romanticism brandishing facts as well as intuitions and her book is a sophisticated, dexterous defence of and essay after freeing children to find their way nurtured by communities of humans, other animals and the widening world.

In her sallying forth, she tells stories including the testimony of many particular children, calls forth the witness of poets, educators and different cultures (in time and place), deploys research neurophysiological, anthropological and social and weaves it all together with a fine poetic eloquence.

All kinds of things stick in the mind but the overriding one is the sheer ambiguity of our attitude to children - that we care about them (rather abstractly) is certain but equally certain is we are deeply confused about how to practically embody that caring in such a way that maximises the potential of their flourishing.

This ambiguity is everywhere, but just two examples, first children tell us that they like circular or irregularly shaped classrooms that maximise both the opportunities for collaboration and spaces for exercising the hidden, the separate and the autonomous but do we ever design a classroom with this in mind? The nearest is possibly the Forest Schools in Denmark. Second, we want our children to grow up as self-reliant, autonomous people and yet today I noticed a father could not leave his son (nine or ten) outside the Gents while he went for a pee in that well known site of imminent threat - the National Gallery!

Kith both exposes these ambiguities and invites us to think more carefully as to what childhood might look like if it was genuinely child centred and humane. It is a brave, bold and imaginative book.

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